Being new to the ‘burg, I am inspired by local efforts supporting young people’s health, well being and recreation – the Safe Routes to Schools program, the Cycle Lobby and the Northend Greenway, to name a few. Providing social spaces for children to engage in healthy activity outdoors shows vital vision and commitment to their positive social, emotional and physical development – enriching the whole community.
As a sociologist, councilor, children’s empowerment specialist and evaluator of kids’ health and well being programs, my eyes are always peeled on how communities meet their youngsters’ needs. My core belief is when we support the best start to life, we nurture potential, building a better now and a better future for everyone.
Through personal and professional travels far and wide, I have observed that context strongly shapes what families, communities and societies need for their children. Particular histories breed particular issues. Harrisonburg is no different. But some commonalities abide. For example, young people are more likely to be balanced, healthy, productive and happy citizens when they are part of balanced, healthy and productive communities. As the adage goes, children learn by example. Harrisonburg is putting this wisdom into practice.
Take the example of the Northend Greenway. Greenways may be primarily routes to and from places, but they also potentially provide and connect green spaces for picnics and recreation, for time spent with loved ones and countless other ways to enjoy the outdoors while enjoying physical exercise. I’d like to add to the topics covered on this site about the accumulating knowledge that greenways frequently bring economic, social and health benefits to their communities and visitors.
Let’s not forget the topic of play and playfulness that enhances everyone’s, and particularly young people’s, health and well being which I see as important aspects of the new Greenway’s contribution.
Play is often thought of as the opposite of work and therefore unproductive. But large bodies of rigorous research show play is vital to numerous aspects of our development and well being. As natural investigators, through play we develop our abilities to be creative, to experiment, to be inventive and to strengthen our discerning capabilities. Play and learning are intertwined at every age, yet especially for children. Experiences gained through playful activity contribute fundamentally to kids’ abilities to walk, talk, form relationships and understand the world around them. Without minds that can experiment, explore and create, we would never know the wheel, the computer, the vaccine, the bicycle, social relationships and political systems for example.
As childhood forms the building blocks for each person’s relationship with the world, play is anything but purposeless and unproductive. Play time is also essential for adults, encouraging us to keep exploring new places, making things, teasing our friends, telling jokes, even trying new recipes. These are all forms of play and help us connect with ourselves, to those around us and to our environments.
‘Playable spaces’ are life affirming public places children need. As the world changes and more children live in urban settings, these spaces are at ever greater premiums, while the opportunities they afford remain vital. In locations around the world where greenways and playable spaces are integral parts of communities, they respond to multiple social, economic, environmental and medical needs, positively impacting across ages, genders and socio-economic groups. I have been involved in many research projects focused on ensuring children can access such spaces. Young people, parents, teachers and local authority figures repeatedly list access to safe places where outdoor play and activity are encouraged, without the threat of traffic, as a top priority.
In making easily accessible spaces where healthy minds and bodies can be nurtured, this town is helping its children have a more vibrant future and ensuring the likelihood of growing into healthy, happy adults. Spaces for cycling, walking and playing contribute to all who live, work and study in Harrisonburg, for the present and the future, making this an ever more appealing and welcoming place to live and visit.
Hannah Henry Smith, PhD, is a qualitative scholar, research consultant and educator whose experience builds on over 15 years of creative work with children and young people. Her expertise includes policy and practice analysis, young people’s rights, empowerment and well being. You can reach Hannah at HannahHenrySmith@gmail.com